Africa at home Cultural politics in wildwater
"What if there was more than just one culture in today's world?" [Revue Noire].
While the slogan "totally global" proclaims worldwide networking and seeming equality for widely differing places it implies the evening out of cultural idiosyncrasies at the same time. And there remains the difference between economic realities, making "totally global" appear as a mere cynicism of a world which in fact determines the set patterns and guidelines of globalisation. In opposition to this the above quote from "Revue Noire" clearly suggests the questioning of power and determination.
Modernity, although deconstructed during the eighties and nineties, is still measured against the views and standards of the ""First World"" without any consideration as to the development of innovations within other nations within their own time. It is the ""First World"" which is the model indicating the status quo as well as setting new trends. Power is not to be shared.
Ethnocentric views are forgotten.
What are we talking about when the conversation turns to "African" art? Size and diversity of the continent preclude the reduction of African art to a common denominator.
Therefore the use of terms such as "Africa" and "African" in this article is to be read only as including the reference to the insight, that the Arabian countries of the North have as much in common with Uganda and Madagascar as industrialised South-Africa with Somalia.
A comparison with the envisioned United Europe suggests itself: imagining an exhibition featuring artists from Portugal, Iceland and Greece - would we be talking about European art?
Even within Europe, the centre is clearly defined. In July 2000, the title of a review in the NZZ 1) discussing Northern European art exhibited in the Vienna Art Hall was: "From the periphery towards the centre".
The entrance of "others" into an "art metropolis" is guaranteed as long as it is proclaimed with and accompanied by a special view as to their status.
The ethnocentric outlook of the ""First World"" on Africa is gladly forgotten, as well as the fact that even in 1996 an exhibition of contemporary African Art in Zurich was shown in the Museum of Anthropology. The old projections onto African art as the epitome of "authentic" folk art -which we believe to have lost-, nicely fitting the myth of Africa as the cradle of mankind, bringing forth unadulterated originality, have been exchanged against new ones. Nowadays African Art is supposed to satisfy the need for those contents, western artists have sacrificed to aesthetics.
Could it be then, that above all pictures by African artists criticizing political systems as well as speaking of the ardently awaited new beginning, are sought after?
A minefield of identities.
Here, within Central European latitudes, multicultural coexistence is hardly ever mentioned within the arts, in spite of increasing attacks on people of different colour and origin. Everybody, too, seems to have gotten used to living happily with unquestioned contradictions. After the seventies and the eighties and their focus on (artistic) policies of identity within marginalized groups (women, homosexuals, blacks, migrants) which was a part of the discourse within the arts, a certain weariness towards formulations of these problems is to be discerned, not, however, because marginalizations have been abolished - that would be as good as having distributed power more evenly! There is irritation among the people affected who still have to fight for things everyone else can take for granted. Many of them prefer not to comment on these topics any more. The artist Steve McQueen for instance, after having been asked about the importance of "blackness" for his art, tersely replied that, after all, no one speaks to the white artist Bruce Naumann about the colour of his skin and its position within his work. So it is hardly amazing that we can have a conversation with representatives of the South African art scene in which there is no mention of colour or race. They, too, mainly "light skinned" or "white", are apparently fed up with these problems and prefer to look ahead, disregarding realities still extant even six years after the official repeal of Apartheid (Basel, Museum of Contemporary Art, conference "Totally Global, october 2000).
Yet just now self-confident claims of identities, whose characteristics, rituals etc. have to be protected against takeovers by "others" lead towards a veritable minefield of identities within a multi ethnic community and its rigid as well as hybrid forms of appearance.
A few artists employ cultural diversity by using set pieces outside of their original context. Yet often the audience in other countries lacks the basic knowledge necessary for the readability of their art. Thus the new arrangement of display leads to the emergence of a further cultural identity.
New media as progress?
"Outsiders" for the art market.
It does not come as a surprise that just now there is a demand for "African" artists within the international context of the arts, for a lot of the young artists of the continent employ media and forms of communication which have been hyped on the cosmopolitan scene and are now regarded as standard. Video art, installations and photography are welcomed benevolently and considered as developments, which are compatible with the international market as their interpretation has been simplified by the use of a similar formal approach and is thus at least at first glance not overburdened with "otherness". Historically seen, as Colin Rhodes writes in "Outsider Art", installations and performances have always been expressions of "African art" whereas classical painting on canvas has only been introduced into the countries of the "dark continent" by way of their colonisation. However, the conception of the artist as understood by the ""First World"" did not exist in most African countries. Its development is to be seen in connection with colonialisation and the consequences of post colonialism. As one's own narcissism thrives best in the mirror of the "other", positions of African artists are not integrated into international exhibitions of Western art, but treated separately as foreign and "other". Every few years the market demands the discovery and commercialisation of such "outsiders" in order to present itself in the limelight. Thus, the market's position does not differ widely from that of the missionaries having roamed (still roaming!) the countries of the ""Third World"" to convert the "others" and praise the body of Christ in the face of vegetarianism in India.
Open cultural politics?
The unwanted gaze onto "one's own".
Just how problematic it is to deal with the "other", was illustrated by the exhibition "Change Directory" at The Art Hall in Berne in 1999. It opened for a mere nine (!) days, thus amounting to no more than a token exercise. Fourteen artists of the Diaspora, living in Switzerland were invited. The show did not focus on the quality of their work but on the fact that they live as strangers in this country. The short duration of the exhibition underscores the impression that its main intent was the acknowledgment of the different situation of these artists in order to appease one's own conscience.
In order to shed some light on controversial practices of cultural politics I shall refer to the situation of the artist Fatma M'Seddi Charfi, who has been living in Switzerland for fourteen years before being invited to the said exhibition.
In spite of her taking part in numerous exhibitions abroad she has never been invited to exhibit in renowned Swiss museums, nor has her work ever been chosen for the regular Christmas exhibition in Berne, her place of residence. At the 1999 Cairo Biennial Festival she was awarded the first prize, and she was honoured with the "Grand Prix" of the Dakar Biennial Festival 2000. In summer 2000 she was the only artist resident in Switzerland to be invited to an exhibition of 100 international artists in Sweden; at the World Exhibition in Hannover, Germany she represented Tunisia, her country of origin. The Swiss media, however, only mentioned her honours with a few lines; the Arts Council of Switzerland declined any support for the exhibition in Sweden.
The "other" in one's own garden.
Instead of being proud of a foreign artist living in one's own country it is easier to make use of the "other" from afar. It is less dangerous than to acknowledge the "other" in one's own garden which, by dint of its different position provokes unwanted and unasked for looks at that which one likes to call one's own. The "other" from afar remains "other"; it can be pushed out of sight again quickly, and its content and the questions it raises are easily dismissed as "not pertaining to us". Power is plainly distributed. The saying "never expect gratitude once you've served your purpose" reads in German as the well-known phrase: "once the Negro has done his duty, he may leave".
The "African" art scene itself has a great deal of trouble with "other" artistic positions as can be inferred from reactions of the African press to the distribution of the awards in Dakar. One could read for instance that the awards were considered concessions to western trends in art, the works honoured "un-African" and their distinction a betrayal of one's own culture.
Many artists not only from African countries equate success with the opportunity to leave their country of origin in order to establish themselves in a "metropolis of art" in either Europe or the United States. Some of the "African" artists have already been living in London, New York, Amsterdam for several years. Thus they also occupy the important role of intermediary between different worlds. Art speaks for itself, but explanatory words and reports of first hand experience lead to a deeper understanding of diverse, complex backgrounds.
The internationally linked market is omnipotent, its set patterns opaque, yet the decision as to who is going to make it or rather who gets the chance to stand their ground on international territory depends on it.
Already the models of financial support and sponsorship as devised by the private industry and the interest of collectors have brought their influence and rank to bear on public institutions.
Costly expenditures for artistic work change the attitude towards and the expression of "independent art" and enforce the entanglement with the capital.
Works of art have to guarantee market interest as well as their translatability into corporate philosophy. In the long run only a few "names" succeed internationally; a lot of artists constitute as well as remain periphery within an internationally fast-moving, all-devouring art scene, which dictates method and market.
As a tendency within the cosmopolitan art scene a new and overriding "nation" is emerging, in which a common formal language and common contents free of reference to origins and history is made use of.
This is how the creation of a new identity works: an identity based on fast information transfer as well as on the worldwide networking of big corporations.
©Rayelle Niemann, email@example.com
1) Neue Zürcher Zeitung